Malcolm never expected to become friends with Stevie, but he’s never regretted it, not until today. He’s sitting on his bed with his mom and dad across from him, and their faces seem more fragile than he’s ever seen them, except maybe the time they thought his dad was gonna die. There’s a rushing sound in his ears and his face feels all tingly. He’s thinking that surviving junior high friendless, solitary but for Reese’s dubious protection, would have been infinitely better than this.
“What?” he says, because he had to have misheard.
“Honey, I’m so sorry,” says his mom. It’s setting in that something is truly, truly wrong, because she never talks to him like this. The gentle tone sounds odd in her voice, like a saxophone playing Chopin’s Tristesse - mismatched.
“Now, listen, son,” his dad chimes in, although Malcolm can still barely hear him over the heartbeat pounding in his head. “Stevie is going to need his best friend in the next few months. It’s going to be tough, but you’ve got to be a good friend to him now more than ever.” Dad is holding Mom’s hand in his lap with both of his own, one thumb gently stroking the back of her palm. Malcolm watches its motion, hypnotic like a ticking clock.
“We’re going to be here for you this whole time,” says Lois. Malcolm finally looks up and finds her face. It looks strange and unfamiliar, like he’s never seen her before.
“Until he dies?”
His dad’s face twitches, eyes fixed on the floor. His mom just sets her jaw. Malcolm sees her hold Hal’s hand tighter.
“Even afterward,” she says.
Suddenly, Malcolm is aware that his breaths are coming too quick. There’s a strain in his body like he’s just climbed a massive hill. He feels himself tip over the peak all too suddenly, face crumpling, and knows that the dignity of shock is giving way to reality. He convulses, body wracked by the first sob. Somewhere, a detached part of him is impressed by the sound. Like a wounded wolf. His parents are on him before the cry has left his mouth, and in the dark cavern of their arms he lets the grief come and time stands still.
When Malcolm wakes up later, it is with the familiar sense of disorientation that comes with a late-afternoon nap, spitting him out with a weird-tasting mouth and lines from the pillow across his face. He rolls over, feeling warm and comfortable and sleepy but weirdly empty, hollow, in a way that’s less easy to place. The corners of his mouth twitch, eyes still pressed closed, eyebrows twisting as awareness comes to him like a knife. He breaks the surface of awakeness and opens his eyes just as his mother’s words find their place in his memory, not sugarcoated because he’s too smart for any euphemism she could throw out, just Stevie has terminal cancer.
The alarm clock reading a faint 10:24, Malcolm hears the faint noises of the TV through the wall and imagines Reese and Dewey there, on opposite ends of the couch with a cushion and an unsettled silence between them. Any intention his parents must have had to give Malcolm privacy during the initial onset of grief would have been quickly shattered by his sobs reaching his brothers in the living room. He wonders if they know the full truth yet or if he has the dubious honor of being the first to know about his best friend’s impending death; if they had immediately battered his parents with questions about what could have made him cry like that, or if obliviousness or discomfort had kept them silent through dinner. Usually, the panicky feeling he gets when he can’t answer a question comes from the dissonance between the uncertainty and his identity as the smart one, the guy with the biggest brain in the room. This time, it’s compounded by the fact that, more than he knows the heart rate of a mouse or the laws of thermodynamics, he knows his brothers. He can picture their reactions to anything, except this.
Hunger is gnawing vaguely at the inside of his stomach, so he reluctantly stands and crosses the dark room. As the door swings open, a beam from the hall light cuts across the floor, widening and changing shape, until Malcolm slips out and shuts it behind him. He trudges down the hallway like a shambling ghost.
Reese and Dewey don’t see him when he reaches the kitchen. With a dull sense of surprise, Malcolm notes tear tracks streaked across Dewey’s face. Reese unshockingly sports none, but he looks perturbed. Malcolm knows his brothers are Stevie’s friends too, but for some reason he didn’t expect them to actually care, at least not like he does. Not like this.
He’s still staring at the backs of their heads when he opens the fridge door, and at the noise they snap around to look at him in unison, like a pair of dogs hearing a key in the latch. Malcolm averts his gaze fast, staring into the depths of the refrigerator instead. When he glances back over, Reese has hastily looked away, but Dewey is still staring at him, eyes wide. He can feel an expression pass over his face quickly, but he has no idea what it looks like. Whatever Dewey sees makes him, too, turn back to the TV, though not without an enigmatic answering look of his own. Malcolm doesn’t know what it means, and he wonders when the last time was that his brothers’ thoughts felt this mysterious to him.
Nothing in the fridge looks like it’s worth the effort of eating, so he shuts the door (out of the corner of his eye, he sees Reese’s head jerk in an aborted turn) and heads for the phone instead.
“Francis?” he blurts when the phone is picked up, instead of something normal like hello. His voice sounds rusty, choked. He chalks it up to the vestiges of sleep still stuck in his larynx.
“Malcolm,” says Francis, blearily surprised. Malcolm imagines him rubbing his eyes on the other end of the phone line, dragging the hand down the rest of his face to his jawline, catching in the stubble there. “Shouldn’t you be in bed?”
“I just woke up,” says Malcolm, then comes to a stop, feeling suddenly awkward. He doesn’t know what he’s supposed to say. He’s already heard the right words- his mom said them, if not easily, then at least fluidly- but somehow, coming from him, it feels wrong. Like it would cement the phrase into reality. Francis is silent, waiting, but Malcolm knows the pause won’t last much longer before he starts asking questions. Answering Francis seems strangely less bearable than just spitting it out.
His stomach twists just as the voice is reaching his throat, and the sentence he means to say turns into something else. “Stevie’s gonna die,” says Malcolm, and as he does he knows nothing he can do will make it less real.